America’s tribes frequently clash but they rarely intersect. Over the past 60 years, the Democratic party has morphed into an upstairs-downstairs coalition, graduate-degree holders tethered to an urban core and religious “nones”. Meanwhile, Republicans have grown more rural, southern, evangelical and working class.
Within the GOP, Donald Trump has supplanted the legacies of Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln. According to Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, being a conservative in 2022 is less about advocating limited government and more about culture wars, owning the libs and denouncing globalization.
Subtitled The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, Continetti’s third book examines a century of intellectual and political battles. He seeks to explain how Trumpism became the dominant force within the Republican party. In large measure, he succeeds.
The Right is readable and relatable, well-written and engaging. The author’s command of facts is impressive. For decades, he has lived around and within the conservative ecosystem.
Continetti chronicles the tumult of 1960s, the emergence of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” and the migration of blue-collar ethnic Catholics to what was once the home of the white Protestant establishment. He also looks back, at the pre-New Deal Republican party and at conservatism after the civil war.
Continetti is sensitive to the currents that swirl in and around this country and its people. He laments that in the 21st century blood, soil and grievance have overtaken the conservative orthodoxies of free markets, personal autonomy and communal virtue. He is discomforted by how contemporary conservatism acquired a performative edge.
On the page, his dismay is muted but present. He wistfully recalls the collapse of the Weekly Standard, where he worked for Bill Kristol, his future father-in-law. George W Bush’s war in Iraq was one thing that helped do-in the magazine.
Similarly, the Republican establishment’s call for immigration reform left many Americans feeling unwanted and threatened. The US immigrant population hovers near a record high, almost 14%. More than 44 million people living here were born elsewhere. Even before the pandemic, the fertility rate hit a record low. The populist impulse is not going to disappear.
Trump’s inaugural address, replete with images of “American carnage”, is illustrative of the new conservative normal. Continetti quotes George W Bush: “That was some weird shit.” Nonetheless, on 20 January 2017, Trump struck a nerve.
Continetti is mindful of broader trends, and the havoc assortative marriage has brought to society and politics. On that point, he gives Charles Murray his due. Continetti is pessimistic. Marriage predicated upon educational attainment has helped concentrate intellectual capital and financial advantage within a narrow caste.
Twenty years ago, David Brooks, once Continetti’s colleague, described an idyllic urban existence, Bobos in Paradise. Those who can’t get in, however, face life in purgatory. The meritocracy got what it clamored for, only to discover it wasn’t loved by those it left behind.
Continetti seemingly attempts to downplay similarities between Trump’s Maga movement and the hard-right in Europe. He omits all reference to Nigel Farage in Britain and Marine le Pen in France. Farage led Britain to Brexit and made a cameo appearance in Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the US. Le Pen twice forced Emmanuel Macron into a run-off for president.
On the other hand, Continetti does capture how part of the US right adores Vladimir Putin: his authoritarianism, his unbridled nationalism, his disdain for classic liberalism.
“Putin held the same allure for the national populist right that Che Guevara held for the cold war left,” Continetti writes. “No wonder President Trump was a fan of the Russian autocrat.”
Continetti also says conservatism “anchored to Trump the man will face insurmountable obstacles in attaining policy coherence, government competence, and intellectual credibility”. Here, he stands on shaky ground.
In 2016, Trump assembled a winning coalition and beat Hillary Clinton. In power, he loaded the federal judiciary. Whether Jeb Bush could have replicated such success is doubtful. As for intellectual credibility, in 2008 Kristol, Continetti’s mentor, helped pluck Sarah Palin from obscurity. And we all know where that led.
In 2009, Continetti himself wrote The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star. He now says “attacks on Palin” caused him “to rally to her defense”. Intellectual slumming, more like it. Palin was unfit for the top job. She resigned as Alaska governor 18 months before her term expired.
Continetti also argues that conservatism needs once again to embrace the Declaration of Independence, the constitution and the Bill of Rights.
“One cannot be an American patriot without reverence for the nation’s enabling documents,” he says.
January 6 demonstrates otherwise. Conservatism’s commitment to democracy and the constitution appears situational. Members of the conservative establishment provided intellectual sinew for America’s Caesar. It wasn’t just about Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and folks dressed as Vikings.
John Eastman, a former clerk to Clarence Thomas; Ted Cruz, a former clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist; Mike Lee, son of Rex Lee, Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general. Together with Ginni Thomas, the justice’s wife, they played outsized roles around the Capitol attack. Fifteen months later, Eastman is in legal jeopardy, Cruz is under growing suspicion and Lee looks like a weasel. Ms Thomas merits our scorn.
The reckoning Continetti hopes for may never arrive. Gas prices surge. Crime rises. Together, they portend a Republican midterm landslide. Such realities ushered in Reagan’s 1980 landslide over Jimmy Carter.
A one-term Biden presidency looms. A second Trump term is a real possibility. The latest revelations surrounding Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell teach us that inconvenient truths are quickly discarded. In politics, a win is a win.